The country inns of Vermont are plentiful, so how can any one or two be chosen from the crowd as shouldn't-miss getaways? Nearby downhill and cross-country skiing isn't a determining factor; it's always available. But hospitality may be.
Those inns that prosper are the ones with hosts who go out o their way to make guests feel as if they belong. It's easy to recommend two such inns, Trail's End Lodge in Wilmington, Vt., and further upstate, the Shoreham Inn in Shoreham, just outside of Middlebury.
Both inns are close to slopes and cross-country trails of various size. Some people might want to avoid the crowds at Killington, a superhighway of skiers on any winter weekend. Near Trail's End is Haystack, a place popular to New England skiers who are on a day trip and intent on avoiding traffic. Closer to the Shoreham Inn, Ascutney Mountain is a medium-sized slope, the highest freestanding peak in the East with a 1,530-foot vertical.
At the Shoreham, there's a trail starting behind the back door. Vermont has plenty of cross-country ski centers, where skis can be rented, and plenty of groomed trails are available. However, a little homework can introduce you to a quiet, ungroomed trail, where it is just you, evergreen trees and crisp air.
AS THEY PREPARED FOR THE FALL SEASON, A package arrived one day for Bill and Mary Kilburn -- special delivery from Utz, the potato chip company. The Kilburns are Baltimore natives and lived here until they bought Trail's End in 1985. They still long for crabs, anything from Utz, and all other reminders of home.
But the Kilburns are too busy tending to their inn and guests to spend a lot of time thinking of Baltimore. Their renovations of the 1956 inn restored its country feel. The stone hearth fireplace is the focal point of a room with wooden beams, hardwood floors and a pleasing blue and gray color scheme.
On Saturday nights, guests are encouraged to eat Trail's End's family-style dinner at the inn's round oak tables. It's a natural way for people to get acquainted. There is no dress code, but the candlelight adds anelegance to the dinner.
A good deal of the table discussion focuses on that day's skiing At nearby Mount Snow, the views are classic Vermont: white church steeples and the dots of small villages. At Christmastime, the base lodge is beautifully decorated.
Also close by is Haystack, with 42 trails and six lifts; $30 millio worth of renovations has been done recently. The main mountain holds most of the trails. A connecting trail or shuttle is needed to reach the lower hill. Downhill skiers say that it's difficult to avoid the rolls and dips and sustain a vertical trip for long on the main mountain.
Not too far away, roughly a 45-minute drive from Trail's End, i Magic Mountain. The advanced runs are considered challenging, but intermediate skiers have more opportunities here because of the recent merger with neighboring Bromley.
One excellent place to cross-country ski is in the woods next t Marlboro College in Marlboro, 15 minutes to the west of Wilmington on Route 9. The route to the college is marked and often a path has been established by another skier, although it's a crowded day if more than two other skiers pass by. The route features two or three good downhill grades.
The spacious feel of Trail's End, itself on top of a steep hill usually hits the spot at day's end. There is plenty to do right there, even if you have more in mind than just stretching out. There is a game room with a pool table near the guest entrance and a television lounge on the second floor. On a weekend, most people read or play board games in front of the fireplace.
For the owners of the inn, the interaction with guests and th chance to forge new friendships is a principal reason they left Baltimore in the first place.
"We thrive on this," Bill Kilburn says. "It's the way we are Whether or not we're better than anyone else, I'm not suggesting that. But it's the way we are."
Trail's End Lodge, Smith Road, Wilmington, Vt., 05363 (802)-464-2727
SHOREHAM, VT., HUGS THE BORDER WITHLake Champlain and New York state. This part of Vermont is far more rural than Wilmington to the south. Cows are as plentiful as people. "This has been the same way for 100 years," says Cleo Alter. "There are no new houses in the village."
The inn, loaded with antiques, has been called "one of the tru hidden gems of Vermont." That's no exaggeration. And it's a good bet for skiers because it's so centrally located. Killington is to the south, Sugarbush to the north.
Some downhill skiers consider Killington the Aspen of the East. It's huge, and it's expensive. Everything from the lifts to food costs more. But downhill skiers say that this place should be experienced. There are 107 trails, all interconnected. The snow-making is considered among the best in the state. And many consider one trail, Outer Limits, the toughest in the East -- steep and full of moguls.